[KS] KSR 2001-09: _Early Korean Literature_, by David R. McCann

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Thu Jul 19 00:00:17 EDT 2001

_Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions_, By David R.
McCann. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. xiii + 185 pages, paper
(ISBN 0-231-11947-X); cloth (0-231-11946-1).

Reviewed by Robert J. Fouser
Kagoshima University, Japan

	[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 4 (2001): 167-69.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

_Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions_ is a stimulating
but problematic addition to a slowly growing body of criticism of Korean
literature in English.  These two sides to the book are deeply intertwined
and frequently jar readers, as if to test their alertness.  For a work of
literary criticism to be successful, however, it must work on three levels:
content, organization, and writing.  The content must be stimulating and
soundly researched; the organization must be logical and comprehensive; and
the writing must be persuasive and aesthetically pleasing.  Few works of
literary criticism achieve these things completely, but good and
influential ones do.  How well, then, does _Early Korean Literature_ reach
this ambitious standard?

Content: The most stimulating aspect of Early Korean Literature is the
content. Running through the narrative is a strong emphasis on the social
origins of specific literary works and the "literary culture" from which
they emerged:

"I have continued to find the concept of literary culture intriguing.  It is
a human ecosystem, with finite resources, patterns of use and distribution,
tension between the haves and the have-nots; a monetary system, with
discrete entities having certain values, where perhaps a little something
in Korean might be exchanged for something else entirely in Chinese; but
above all, a cultural system through which contending, competing, sometimes
complementary forces interact" (pp. 99-100).

The author uses this "literary culture" theory to discuss "negotiation" in
the following works: _Ch'Oyong and Manghae Temple_, _Songs of Dragons
Flying to Heaven_, and famous sijo by ChOng Mong-ju, Yi Sun-sin, Hwang
Chin-i, and Yun SOn-do. The author describes negotiation in literature as
follows: "Written works summarize and inscribe previous and ongoing
negotiations about subjects or events that may or may not appear in them;
they ascribe meanings to events and names; they claim the authority to
produce and to be a written record." (p. xii) "Literary culture" thus
emerges from the process of negotiation over the meaning of texts in
society. This theory allows the author to focus on the political and social
issues in the above works that links them to the historical and cultural
context that informed their production. The result is a refreshing approach
that leads to provocative observations such as the following regarding
_Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven_:

"The _Song_'s complex mix of Chinese *and* Korean history, oral *and*
written sources, Korean songs, and stories transformed into
Chinese-language stanzas and annotations, embellished with Korean and
Chinese signs and portents, does not easily lend itself to the modern
teleological narratives of growth toward Korean cultural independence.  It
might, in fact, serve as a textbook example of the contradictions,
tensions, and embattled tendencies referred to in the headnote to this
chapter" [emphasis in original] (p. 132).

One area of concern regarding the theory is the lack of reference to major
theorists who work in this area.  From different perspectives, Terry
Eagleton, Arnold Hauser, and Edward Said on the Western tradition and
Karatani Kojin and Stephen Owen on the East Asian tradition, to name but a
few, have written influential works on the relationship between social
origins and cultural production and, in particular, between literary
culture and literary production. A closer link to these and other critics
working on the social-origins genre of theory would have strengthened the
author's argument.

Organization: Problems with the organization of the book start with the
title. To those familiar with literature, a title with the word "early"
indicates that the book focuses on the formative and early years of the
given literary tradition. This is true in the West as it is in Asia.  Thus,
the term "early English literature," for example, would commonly refer to
literature before Chaucer; "early Chinese literature" to pre-Tang
literature or earlier periods, and "early Japanese literature" to
pre-Kamakura literature. In the case of _Early Korean Literature_, the
author uses the term "early" to refer to all of Korean literature from the
formative years to the end of the nineteenth century. Though dividing
literary history into distinct periods is often arbitrary, the author gives
no reason for the classification of all pre-twentieth-century literature as
"early."  In the context of Korean literary history, the term "early" as
used in this book is a misnomer that risks leaving readers with a distorted
chronology of Korean literary history.

The book is divided into three sections: "A Brief History of Korean
Literature to the Nineteenth Century," "Part 1: An Anthology of Korean
Literature," and "Part 2: Negotiations in Korean Literature." At eleven
pages, the brief history of Korean literature is indeed brief, which makes
it difficult to provide adequate historical context for the discussions
that follow. The organization of Part 1 is odd because the first section
covers early myths and Koryo songs, but not hyangga (though a few appear in
the myths presented) or poetry in classical Chinese. The second section
covers early Choson-period literature with classical Chinese poems and
prose dumped together at the end of the section into a category labeled
"hanmun." The organization of the works in the anthology jumps from being
chronological to being genre-based. More glaring, however, is the omission
of fiction written in Korean and dramatic works. This would have been less
problematic if the author had mentioned clearly that the anthology was a
selection that is closely related to the issues discussed in the book. No
such explanation was given, so the reader is left wondering whether the
anthology is simply a cut-and-paste job of translations that the author had
on hand. Only when readers get to the beginning of Part 2 do they get an
explanation from the author regarding the selection of works for discussion:

The three essays that comprise the second section of this book are not, I
should say at the outset, a chronological study, although they do take
their texts in a sequence that runs from the thirteenth-century _Samguk
yusa_ up to the seventeenth-century "Fisherman's Calendar" by Yun SOn-do
(p. 99).

Writing:  The quality of writing in _Early Korean Literature_ varies, but
it is never very good.  At its worst, it is obtuse and difficult to follow,
as in the following excerpt from the beginning of the book:

Prior to the twentieth century, Korean literature included works written in
the Korean language and also, because of Korea's close political and
cultural association with China and the plain usefulness of the medium, in
Chinese. Prior to the fifteenth-century promulgation of the Korean
alphabet, Korean literary works were recorded either in Chinese translation
or in various systems of Chinese characters used to represent the meanings,
sounds, and grammatical markings of Korean (p. 1).

The above explanation of the history of writings systems is unsatisfactory.
To readers who are familiar with Korean literature, the use of Korean terms
for the different writing systems would have been helpful. To readers who
do not know Korean and who are not familiar with Korean literature, the
description, particularly the description of pre-hangul Korean writing
systems, lacks clarity and detail. The use of semi-colloquial phrases, such
as "the plain usefulness of the medium," is also grating, particularly when
dropped in the middle of woolly academic prose.

Because _Early Korean Literature_ includes a number of translations, a
fourth criterion must be added to the above three: the quality of the
translations. Overall, the quality of the translations is high. They are
faithful to the original and read well in English. At times, however, the
translations are marred by the same formal-colloquial dissonance that
appears in the author's original text, as in the following example from a
dialogue between Master HO (HO Saeng) and the leader of a group of bandits
in "The Story of Master HO":

[Master HO] "Well, if you really mean that, then would it not be better for
you to get married, build houses, do the farming, and stop being bandits?
Your lives would be happy, you wouldn't be worried about going out and
getting caught, and you would have food and clothing in plenty. Wouldn't
that be wonderful?" (p. 89)

Taken together, _Early Korean Literature_ presents a provocative theory of
the role of "literary culture" in Korean literature from the late Koryo to
the mid-Choson periods.  It does what any good theory must do: explain
phenomena. The problem for readers, however, particularly those who are not
familiar with Korean literature, however, is that the theory is buried
under so much disorganized and unclear writing.  Readers can only hope that
the author will let his theory breathe by working on a revised edition and
by exploring the theory in subsequent research on other periods and genres
of Korean literature.

Fouser, Robert 2001
Review of  _Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions_, by
David R. McCann, (2000)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2001, no. 09
Electronic file: http://www.iic.edu/thelist/review/ksr01-09.htm

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